Explorer Mike Fay Survives Elephant Attack in Gabon

David Braun
National Geographic News
January 8, 2003

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Africa explorer J. Michael Fay survived being charged and gored by an elephant in a national park in Gabon on New Year's Eve.

He received cuts and gashes on his arms and legs, including a puncture through his right bicep, but otherwise escaped serious injury. He is currently recovering in the capital city of Libreville.

"I feel like the luckiest person on the planet," said Fay, who has also survived a plane crash, many bouts of malaria, and confrontations with armed poachers, all while trying to protect Africa's wildlife. "All I could see were those tusks bearing down on my chest, and I thought that it was a miracle that I hadn't been killed."

Two years ago Fay completed a 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer), 14-month walk through central Africa in some of the world's most pristine forests. The "Megatransect," a joint expedition of National Geographic and the Wildlife Conservation Society, was featured in several National Geographic magazine articles and a National Geographic EXPLORER TV documentary. National Geographic's Congo Trek Web site collects Fay's dispatches and photographs from the Megatransect.

Due in part to the publicity the walk received, the government of Gabon declared last year the establishment of 13 new national parks that span some 10,000 square miles (25,000 square kilometers).

Fay was in Gabon to help prepare the new park system when he was attacked. The elephant charged a group he was leading through Loango National Park on Gabon's coast. The group fled, while Fay stayed behind to face the elephant's advance, which can usually be staved off by standing one's ground.

Fay said he had been charged numerous times in the past, but nearly all had been bluffs. He put no blame on the elephant, saying that the young female was simply trying to defend its territory, along with another elephant with a calf nearby. There was also the possibility that one of the elephants was the mother of another calf that he had found dying at that exact spot only a few days earlier, he said.

"I fell right in the trap of classic female elephant crossfire," he said in an e-mail.

"It's one of those things that was inevitable," he said in a telephone interview today. "You mess with elephants all the time and you get close to them, eventually one of them is going to go for the full Monty. I just thank God that I had time to turn around, grab those tusks and ride that bronco as long as I could. She never did really hit the mark." Listen to the audio of Fay's telephone interview.

Fay was with the group on New Year's Eve looking for elephants and buffalo on the beach. They came across the three elephants and spent some minutes watching them. "I told the group all along that if we did get charged to run for the beach and that I would stay behind to stop the elephant's charge," he said.

The two adult animals separated and when the older elephant gave a very slight false charge it immediately brought the younger female on a charge right out of the bushes, Fay said. "I told the group to hightail it for the beach, and I retreated a bit into position so that I couldn't get outflanked should the larger female charge," Fay said. "Of course seeing four people running and one backing off brought the younger female on and I stopped, but I was completely out in the open by then and she kept coming.

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